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P. G. Smit

Powertech System Integrators


In order to understand whether building and

The Process bus and digital substations have
operating a digital substation is indeed
dominated most of our recent technical discussions
advantageous for an electrical utility or the electrical
in the electrical substation industry. The majority of
department of a municipality, it is essential to
technical papers based on digital substations tend
understand what it is they are really selling.
to focus on the benefits of using IEC61850 and how
it is changing the substation environment. There
For ease of reference, electrical utilities and the
has also been a focus on continuous refinement of
electrical departments of municipalities will be
the standard and, consequently, on striving for
referred to as utilities throughout this paper.
better ways of working with and deploying the
To answer the question posed above, if electrical
In short, the traditional focus of engineers naturally utilities are selling the latest technology, then
veers towards the technical side of things and the building a digital substation is the way to go. As we
resultant challenges. all know, however, utilities are in the business of
selling affordable electric power of a good quality,
Sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back and
continuously and preferably for a profit. If the
ask oneself some different questions that revolve
installation and operation of a digital substation
more around what the output of the deployment of
negatively affects customer service, continuity of
new technologies is supposed to be (particularly in
supply and profits, the digital substation becomes a
the context of developing economies such as South
Maybe we should also be asking questions like One should understand what challenges utilities
“What are the real benefits of building and operating face on a daily basis in order to assess whether the
a digital substation?”, “How can we measure these various elements of digital substation
benefits?”, “What new tasks are involved?”, “What implementations to date have been a success.
new resources are required?”, “What skills are Phrased differently: how should a digital substation
required?”, “What systems and processes are be designed, built and operated to ensure continued
required?” and mostly “Can we adapt and will it all success in the future?
be worth it in the end?”.
The purpose of this paper is to explore these CHALLENGES FACED BY UTILITIES
questions as seen from the end user’s point of view.
In broad terms, three scenarios will be considered
when deploying digital substation technologies: Utilities experience technical and commercial
new substation construction, substation challenges on a daily basis. Some of these
refurbishment/upgrade and substation emergencies challenges are discussed below to contextualize the
or breakdowns. potential impacts of the introduction of new
This paper will attempt to provide answers to the
critical questions above and, in so doing, analyse The life expectancy of primary plant equipment like
the impact these new technologies will have (both transformers and switchgear is typically 60 years if
positive and negative) on the end user’s ability to operated and maintained correctly. As we know, life
execute daily tasks. expectancy depends on the climatic conditions to
It will therefore not only focus on the technical which the equipment is exposed and on how much
challenges experienced through the deployment of the equipment has been stressed throughout its
digital substation technologies, but also consider working life. To complicate matters further, it is
the impact they will have on time and money. expected that microprocessor-based relays will be

replaced every 20 years. This will result in replacing storeroom has to be kept and maintained on a
the secondary plant three times before the primary continual basis, which bears an operational
plant equipment needs to be replaced [1]. expense of its own.

Due to the fact that electrical substations have been When deploying microprocessor-basedd
around for more than 100 years, the technology equipment, the utility must have updated software
available to control and protect the primary plant available to interrogate and make changes to
equipment has changed with time. As a result configurations of each type of device when required.
utilities have many different generations of As a result, a Personal Computer (PC) or laptop is
secondary control and protection equipment required to perform settings or configuration
technologies installed. The bulk of protection and updates, which have an additional financial impact
control equipment installed at utilities prior to the on the utility.
1960’s was predominantly electromechanical.
The devices from the different OEMs may even
Solid state equipment was installed in the late require their own, unique communication cables
1960’s when researchers ventured into the use of supporting proprietary protocols and software
computers for power system protection and control. packages. The settings and maintenance personnel
These ventures coupled with the advancements in must be trained to use these packages. Attending
Very Large Scale Integrated (VLSI) technology and training courses further encroaches on the time
software techniques in the 1970’s lead to the first personnel have available to perform their daily
microprocessor-based equipment being offered tasks. Attending training courses naturally also
commercially in 1979 [2]. carries its own financial burden.

It is important to note that the different generations Adding to the technical challenges utilities face on a
of control and protection equipment will require daily basis, consider maintaining substation
different maintenance and replacement plans. This schematics and relay configurations and settings.
affects how utilities schedule maintenance on this This problem is by no means new or as a result of
equipment and how they formulate a strategy to installing new secondary plant equipment but has
phase out older technologies. always existed where a change to the substation or
secondary plant equipment was made. The
challenge experienced by utilities is configuration
and change management following the occurrence
of a particular event.

With the advancement in secondary plant

equipment technology from electromechanical
relays to solid-state relays and now to
microprocessor-based relays, the amount of
settings parameters available has increased and
the complexity of configuring newer generation
technologies has also increased.

Designing, populating and maintaining a

configuration management system remains a key
challenge in modern electricity utilities worldwide.
Ideally, any configuration and document
management database should be easily updated
and vendor agnostic to as greater extent as

As if technical challenges are not enough, utilities

face many other (commercial) challenges, some of
FIGURE 1: Electromechanical Protection Relay. which have only surfaced in recent times. Consider
extended outages caused by theft of copper cable,
By having the mix of different secondary plant incorrect operation of protection relays and
technologies installed, spares are kept to replace sabotage of power system protection equipment by
equipment when failures occur. Spares handling for disgruntled employees or cyber-attack from
microprocessor-basedd equipment like protection hackers.
relays has proved to be a problem given the fact that
there are so many different Original Equipment As can be seen from the technical and commercial
Manufacturers (OEMs) supporting different challenges outlined above, utilities are facing an
functionality and communication protocols. A increasingly difficult task in their quest to sell

affordable electric power of a good quality, • There is a reduction in required panel space
continuously and at a profit while operating and when installing microprocessor-based
maintaining the electrical network. relays as compared to electromechanical
All these challenges raise a number of burning • Modern relays also place less burden on
questions that must be considered in the Current Transformers (CTs) and Voltage
deployment of new technologies. Transformers (VTs) relative to
electromechanical relays.
• Sequence of events and oscillography data
THE BURNING QUESTIONS used during fault investigations were never
available with electromechanical relays.
• Self-monitoring and testing functions to
i) What is the desired output of deploying newer report in the event of component or relay
relay technologies? failure are also available.

Differently phrased, surely the deployment of newer There are, however, some shortcomings related to
technologies should better enable a utility to sell microprocessor-based relays [2]:
affordable power of a better quality, more readily at
greater profits? • They have a shorter life span relative to
their electromechanical counterparts
With the advancement in microprocessor-based • They are susceptible to transients such as
technology, hardware is clocked at higher speeds Electro Magnetic Interference (EMI) and
resulting in secondary equipment operating faster Radio Frequency Interference (RFI)
due to analogue measurements being sampled at • They are more complex to configure and
higher rates. Consequently, relays will process this maintain.
information faster, trip faster and clear the fault
condition faster. Ultimately, industry has concluded that the benefits
of using microprocessor-based relays far outweigh
The improvement in speed decreases the amount their shortcomings. This has led to their widespread
of energy to which the primary plant equipment is acceptance over the last twenty years.
exposed. As a result the life span of the primary
plant equipment is extended. We can even prove ii) What are the real benefits of building and
this from first principles! operating a digital substation?
The energy dissipated by the primary plant is To answer the question one probably first needs to
governed by the following equation: define what a digital substation is.
= …………………………………………….[1] Most substations today switch and route AC power
at high or very high voltages - it is not the primary
E = Energy (Joule) flow of power which is digital.
I = Current (Ampere)
t = Time (seconds) A digital substation typically refers to its secondary
plant, including all the protection, control,
As can be seen from the energy equation, reducing measurement, condition monitoring, recording and
tripping times reduces the energy the primary plant supervisory systems associated with that primary
dissipates under fault conditions. power flow, being digital.
Here are some of the many benefits realised In general terms, a full digital substation is one in
through the application of microprocessor-based which most of the available data related to the
relays [2]: primary power flow is digitized immediately, at the
point where it is measured. Thereafter, the
• Microprocessor-based relays have more exchange of that data between devices occurs via
information available to enable the user to Ethernet, as opposed to via the many kilometres of
create custom configurations. copper hardwiring which may exist in a conventional
• Multiple functions are supported by one substation.
device. The cost per function implemented
in microprocessor-based relays is therefore Digital substations imply a solution and architecture
cheaper relative to electromechanical in which the substation’s functionality is
relays. predominantly achieved in software with less
• Microprocessor-based relays provide users reliance on hardware implementations such as
with the capability of customizing logic in hardwiring [3].

The success of a digital substation relies on the A fibre optic Ethernet connection is made between
effectiveness of the digital communications system the IED and a Process Bus Ethernet Switch to
within the substation to connect all protection, establish the Process Bus. The protection, control
control and monitoring devices. Until recently, all and metering IEDs are also connected to the
OEMs supported proprietary protocols when Process Bus Ethernet Switch to enable IEDs to
building a digital substation. Solutions such as these obtain process level information.
typically require protocol converters to
communicate to equipment from other OEMs. The protection, control and metering IEDs also
connect to the Station level equipment (HMI and
As a result, IEC workgroup TC57 published the Gateway) via an Ethernet connection between the
IEC61850 standard in 2003 [4]. This standard did IEDs and the station bus switch to form the station
not only cover what information the equipment bus.
within a substation should communicate, but also
how to communicate. IEC61850 provides Because of the technology advances, the digital
interoperability between vendors by defining the substation offers the following benefits:
communication protocol, data format and
configuration language. • Interoperability between different
vendors. Using IEC61850, different
The functional hierarchy of IEC61850 is show in vendors’ IEDs can communicate with each
Figure 2. other to exchange information. This places
the customer in the position of being able to
choose the best IED for the application
based on functionality and price. Due to the
open model structure of IEC61850, an IED
can be replaced with and IED from another
vendor if required.
• Substation wide, high-speed peer-to-
peer communication. Substation control
and protection functions can be integrated
at bay level using Generic Object
Orientated Substation Event (GOOSE)
• Reduction in required CT cores. The use
of Sample Measured Value (SMV) reduces
the required cores per CT because the SMV
published from one CT core can be used by
many different IEDs for different functions.
FIGURE 2: Functional hierarchy of IEC61850 [5]. • Reduction in control cable. A reduction in
cabling between the primary plant
Process level: This includes switchyard equipment equipment and the protection, control and
such as CTs, VTs, Remote I/O and actuators. metering IEDs results in significant cost
Bay level: This includes Intelligent Electronic savings.
Devices (IEDs) such as protection, control and • Reduction in restoration times caused
metering devices of different bays. by cable theft. A significant saving is
Station level: The functions and equipment realised if the need arises to replace fibre
requiring data from more than one bay such as optic cable(s) installed between the primary
Human Machine Interfaces (HMIs) and plant equipment and the process bus
communications gateways are implemented at this Ethernet switch. No re-commissioning of
level. the protection schemes is required as
Process bus: This facilitates the time critical would be the case with conventional copper
communication between protection and control cable. This results from the inherent
IEDs to the process (the primary equipment in the behaviour of the IEC61850 protocol
substation) such as sampled values, binary status allowing self-testing functionality to be
signals or binary control signals. configured within the IEDs.
Station bus: This facilitates communication
between station level and bay level. It also allows While discussing the benefits it is also necessary to
communication among different bays. address the shortcomings of a digital substation so
that we can objectively assess the benefits of
In practical terms the information from the primary building and operating a digital substation.
plant equipment is made available via an IED in a
digital format. This IED is installed in the yard either One of the major problems with the implementation
in the primary plant equipment or in a junction box. of IEC61850 is that utilities do not necessarily have

the relevant experience and expertise to work with the different aspects of IEC61850 used for
Process Bus. communication between substations.
• Specifications for control centre to
The lack of tools to assess problems while fault- substation communications. Control data
finding and the ease-of-use of such tools are some exchange between substations and control
of the biggest hurdles utilities experience. Process centres is beyond the scope of IEC61850
Bus is typically used for time critical messages such [5]. IEC61850-90-2 discusses the
as GOOSE and SMV that require high-speed communication between substations and
performance. It is essential for all components control centres [7].
forming part of the Process Bus and Station Bus to
operate as quickly, reliably and efficiently as After evaluating both the benefits and shortcomings
possible. for building, operating and maintaining a digital
substation, one needs to ask how these benefits
The major issues experienced by utilities when it and shortcomings can be measured and whether
comes to Process Bus level communication are [5]: deploying digital substation technologies is really in
the utility’s best interest.
• Incorrect network topology
implemented between IEDs. Slow Before measuring and quantifying if building a
communication network performance due digital substation is in the best interest of the utility,
to LAN configuration not meeting the the new equipment and related tasks required to
IEC61850-5 message transmission delay build, operate and maintain a digital substation must
requirements [6]. be identified and understood.
• Not all relays and switches support
priority tagging iii) What new equipment and related tasks are
• Time synchronization accuracy. involved in building, operating and maintaining
IEC61850 specifies Simple Network Time a digital substation?
Protocol (SNTP) as the synchronization
standard. SNTP provides a 1 millisecond In the previous section of this paper digital
(ms) timing accuracy. This has proved to be substations and conventional substations were
too inaccurate for certain applications. The compared, the benefits and shortcomings identified
IEEE1588 standard provides a better timing and new tasks highlighted when building, operating
accuracy but not all vendors support and maintaining a digital substation.
• Proprietary implementations. Vendors Hardware considerations will be analysed starting at
have also released products that provide a the primary plant equipment level and moving up
point-to-point connection between Process towards the station level.
Bus IEDs and the protection relay which
implements a propriety protocol used for New IEDs are introduced at the primary plant level
time stamping of the events on a process (whether installed as a separate device or
level. integrated as part of the primary plant itself). These
• Conformance to IEC standards. Not all IEDs are required in addition to conventional
IEDs installed in IEC61850 networks substation IEDs and effectively digitize
comply with the IEC standards with respect measurements and other data related to the primary
to EMI and environmental specifications. plant. They then publish this information to all other
This often leads to interference causing interested parties.
loss of information between IEDs on the
network. These new yard devices come with the
disadvantage of requiring some form of power
On the station bus, the following implementation source whether AC or DC. Other primary plant
problems have been experienced [5]: devices such as circuit breaker motors, however,
also require auxiliary power. The IEDs installed in
• Not all relays and switches support the yard can simply be powered from sources that
priority tagging are required in any event.
• Peer-to-peer communications between
different vendors. Not all IEC61850 IEDs With the introduction of the digital substation, the
available, communicate effectively with copper cable installed between the substation yard
IEDs from other vendors. and substation control room will reduce significantly
• Specifications for intra-substation (due to the yard IED making all this information
communications. Control data exchange available digitally as mentioned above).
between station levels (i.e. between
substations) is beyond the scope of
IEC61850 [5]. IEC61850-90-1 discusses

have splicing kits and tools used to repair damaged

The bigger utilities will likely find it more economical

to own the equipment to install, test and repair fibre
optic cable as compared to the smaller utilities who
might outsource this function.

The Ethernet switch is another new addition to the

conventional substation. It is one of the most
important components of the digital substation and
has proved to be the downfall of digital substations
if incorrect hardware was selected or incorrectly
FIGURE 3: Merging Unit Installed in substation
yard. iv) What new resources, systems and processes
are required when building, operating and
The CT test blocks, traditionally installed on the maintaining a digital substation?
protection and control panels, will move to the yard
as can be seen from figure 3. Once the equipment and tasks required for building,
operating and maintaining a digital substation are
By moving the test blocks to the yard, the testing identified, a few new questions come to mind:
and commissioning procedures will need to change.
The process of CT testing will be simplified with all Who will be responsible for performing new tasks
equipment involved being in close proximity in the that previously did not exist? Consider the dilemma
yard. This raises a few pertinent questions: of the Ethernet switch. Is the protection department
responsible? Is it rather the control/SCADA or
How will the location of the test blocks impact Telecommunication department? Should there
secondary injection tests? Will test sets used to perhaps be a new department formed who takes on
perform secondary injections even have current this responsibility? If so, what do we call this
probes? Will a test set not simply be a software department?
program residing on a PC or laptop leisurely
simulating digital currents, voltages and trips over Traditionally the organizational structure of utilities
an Ethernet connection? was guided by the function personnel performed
within a substation. As a simple example, the
Protection Department is responsible for all
protection related tasks within the substation and
the Control/SCADA Department is responsible for
all tasks related to the communication of data to
various users for SCADA purposes.
Telecommunication department is responsible for
communication infrastructure to and from the

The advent of the digital substation has, however

introduced a new function within the substation that
relates to the communications network itself (as
FIGURE 4: Fibre optic cable installed in opposed to the data it carries). Is a new department
substation yard. required within the utility responsible for substation
communications networks?
The various physical connections and inter-
connections between the yard IEDs and Ethernet The general consensus in the industry today is that
switches will all be using fibre optic cable. a group of networking specialists is held responsible
for communications networks in substations. There
The fibre cable is a new addition to the conventional can be no doubt that inappropriate or ill-informed
substation. It possesses different challenges that designs and decisions relating to this important
raise different questions when operating and function will become the utilities nightmare.
maintaining this cable:
It is therefore the author’s opinion that a department
How will the cable be replaced when damaged? Will dedicated to substation communications networks
the utility keep standard lengths cable in a store and is critical in order for utilities to reap the benefits of
replace the cable when required, or will the utility the digital substation.

TABLE 1: Equipment not required in the digital
The answer to the challenges posed above will substation
clearly be different for each utility, as their
requirements will vary according to their size,
budget and installed base.

These challenges will force utilities to rethink their

organizational structures when it comes to
operating and maintaining digital substations.

v) How can we measure the benefits of a digital


From a technical point of view, the digital substation

with all the benefits and shortcomings as discussed TABLE 2: Additional equipment required in the
has been accepted by the industry to be the only digital substation
way forward.

As engineers we tend to focus only on the technical

aspects and forget the financial impact of a
technology decision. This section will focus on a
cost calculation performed from the utilities point of
view for the following conditions:

i. Capital and operational cost comparison TABLE 3: Digital substation capital saving
between building a digital substation vs.
conventional substation.
ii. Capital and operational cost calculation
when upgrading a conventional
substation to a digital substation.
iii. Capital and operational cost calculation
A capital saving of R 800 000 was realized by
when upgrading a conventional
building a digital substation as compared to a
substation to a digital substation during an
conventional substation.
emergency condition or breakdown.
It should be noted, however, that no process bus
With respect to capital cost comparisons for new
equipment was used in this specific case. Tables 4
substation construction, a South African utility
and 5 below show the additional cost for process
performed an exercise to determine the financial
bus equipment for this substation and the savings
impact of building a digital substation versus a
for legacy equipment not required.
conventional substation [8]. The exercise was
performed on a 132/11kV substation with four TABLE 4: Equipment not required when using
transformers and twenty 11kV feeders. No yard Process Bus
IEDs were installed with primary plant signals wired
from junction boxes in the yard to the control and
protection panels. IEC61850 was used to make the
information available within the substation between
the IEDs at both bay and station level.

The tendered prices for the digital substation

equipment were compared to prices of existing
contracts at the time that were using legacy control
and protection equipment. The value of “take-out”
and “add-in” items were as follows:

TABLE 5: Additional equipment required when same time, the conventional substation is at risk due
using Process Bus to the inability of a protection trip signal reaching the
circuit breaker and clearing the fault. This can lead
to substation equipment damage resulting in
prolonged outages. This has a negative impact on
the goal of utilities to sell affordable electric power
of a good quality, continuously and at a profit.

In the example discussed above one of the

transformers has a 30 MVA rating. If we
conservatively assume a 30 % loading for an
industrial customer with a constant load, the loss of
revenue would be 108 MWh of electrical power
From tables 4 and 5 only a relatively small saving of sales for a 12 hour outage.
R4 500 would have been realized by installing a
The process bus installation reduces the risk of
process bus solution. Note that the cost calculation
cable theft in the substation due to the reduction in
of the utility [8] was performed in 2007 and therefore the copper cable installed. In the event of any of the
the costs in tables 4 and 5 have been adjusted by process bus equipment becoming faulty, the control
inflation to reflect 2007 pricing for comparative personnel will be notified immediately using the
purposes. built-in mechanisms of IEC61850.

In a separate exercise performed by the same utility It is apparent from the above that real capital and
for a 132 kV Switchyard with nine feeders and a bus operational cost savings can be realised through the
section, indicated little difference in price between application of digital substation technologies.
the legacy and new philosophy protection and
control equipment [8]. The next scenario will focus on the upgrading of a
conventional substation to a digital substation. The
In the case of this switchyard, the reduction in costs
calculations are based on upgrading four 132/11kV,
of the secondary cabling and the omission of the
legacy supervisory equipment is cancelled out by 30 MVA transformers and twenty 11kV feeders to
the additional costs of the communications network IEC61850. The additional equipment and labour is
and HMI. The improved functionality achieved shown in table 6.
through substation automation is therefore achieved
for no extra cost in this case. TABLE 6: Upgrading legacy substation to digital
Shifting the focus to assessing cost differentials
from an operational and maintenance point of view,
spares holding and new tools required for
maintenance and repair must be considered.

The process bus installation requires spares to be

kept for the yard IEDs. Table 5 indicates the price of
four units. Depending on the utility’s spares holding
philosophy, one spare would typically be kept for
four installed units. Tools required to repair the fibre
optic installation are also required.

The conventional substation using copper cable

between the primary plant equipment and
substation will require no additional spares to be

In addition to the capital savings outlined above,

additional operational savings become apparent
when one considers certain network events.
Consider, for example, the control cable in a
conventional substation being stolen or damaged
and requires replacing. When upgrading an existing substation it is
assumed no “Take-Out” costs exist, the primary
In such a case, the new cable installation needs to
be tested and the scheme re-commissioned. At the plant and all other equipment already purchased

and not used will become redundant. It should be whether it is in a utility’s best interests to build,
noted that the costs reflected in Table 6 could be operate and maintain a digital substation.
significantly reduced for scenarios where existing Utilities face technical and commercial challenges
on a daily basis due to different secondary plant
substation equipment already supports certain
technologies installed within substations. Each
elements of IEC61850. technology discussed brings its own challenges with
respect to configuration, maintenance and spares
Similar to the first scenario, one cannot lose sight of handling.
the direct revenue losses associated with prolonged
outages not to mention potential claims for Digital substation technologies provide utilities with
consequential damages against the utility for such a means of standardising secondary plant solutions
outages. across different OEMs. At the same time, utilities
reap the benefits of capital, operational and
An important, additional scenario to consider with maintenance cost reduction for substation
respect to substation upgrades is when cases exist construction, refurbishment.
where portions of a conventional substation are
There is no doubt that the digital substation brings
damaged to such an extent that significant with it new technical, operational and potential
refurbishment is required. In such cases, utilities structural challenges to which utilities will need to
should consider the advantages of deploying digital adapt. This should not detract utilities from
substation technologies for the partial upgrade. embracing the digital substation as the benefits far
outweigh the challenges.
In addition to all the benefits described in the
previous scenarios, considering digital substation As South Africans, we have proven through
generations that we are not only willing and able to
upgrades when emergency repairs are undertaken
adapt to newer technologies but also to adapt newer
can drastically reduce the repair time and therefore technologies to suit our (sometimes) unique
reduce the revenue losses due to the outage. requirements.

vi) Will we as South Africans in an emerging We use these new technologies not only to
market be able to adapt and will it be worth it? showcase our engineering ingenuity but to drive our
As South African’s we have proven that we are able
to adapt to changing technologies and use these
technologies to drive our economy. Due to REFERENCE
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